St Cuthbert's Day marks an important anniversary for me too. Ten years ago, I was installed on his day as dean of Durham. I could not have asked for a more auspicious day. It was an unforgettable experience to kneel in his shrine while a Northumbrian piper played in the nave. I felt the saint’s companionship and the promise of his protection, as if he were an old friend I had met for the first time. Our North East ‘welcome back’ could not have been more heartfelt. All our hopes were high.
But for one thing. 20 March 2003 was the day that the Iraq war broke out. (Some say it was the day before, and that may be correct technically, but it was St Cuthbert’s Day when the first missiles were launched against Saddam.) All day long I was listening to updates on the news and rewriting my evening sermon in the light of events as they happened. Half an hour before the service, I decided that enough was enough and switched off. Here is how I began my sermon.
We shall all remember St Cuthbert’s Day 2003 as the day the war began. It is a sombre moment in our history. We have prayed that this cup might pass from us. Now we are compelled to drink it, and its taste is very bitter. We gather here with sadness that it has come to this, and with fear for a future we cannot know. Many have pleaded not to go to war without United Nations backing, but we are where we are. We must pray that the conflict will be brief with as little loss of life as possible. We must pray for relations between the faith communities both in the middle east and here, for this war will ratchet up tensions that are already strained. We must pray for our leaders and the armed forces. We must pray for the Iraqi people. We must love our enemies, for this conflict will make many more of them. And because war erodes truth and brutalises people, we must pray in the words of tonight’s gospel that the darkness may not overtake us.
That was said with some trepidation. It is not the stuff of most installations where deans have to preach themselves in by setting out their stall. But re-reading it ten years on, I believe I was right to trust my instincts. The legacy of the Iraq war has been a terrible alchemy of death, injury, bereavement on all sides but especially among Iraqis; fraught internal relationships between different Iraqi factions resulting in at best a fragile political stasis; a deeper mistrust on the part of global Islam towards the Christian west; the irretrievable loss of heritage belonging to some of the most ancient sites in the world; and the dramatically worsened plight of indigenous Christian communities in their historic homeland whose members are fleeing the country in large numbers to escape persecution. It was a bitter cup then, and it still is.
Some will say that despite the huge cost, it was worth embarking on this adventure in the pursuit of a kinder and more just world. Others will argue that it’s simply too soon to tell what the lasting effects of the war will be. And yet others will assert that it was a disastrous mistake and the last state has turned out to be much worse than the first. I am not qualified to make such judgments. But my misgivings of ten years ago have not gone away.
For me, St Cuthbert’s Day will be an opportunity for personal thanksgiving for the privilege of living and working in such a beautiful, privileged and holy place for the past decade (more about that in a future blog, maybe). But for many others, it will be a more ambiguous commemoration. I am thinking especially of those who lost loved ones in the conflict or who have been permanently scarred by it. So along with my thanksgivings for the past decade will come renewed prayers for Iraq and its afflicted people; prayers for those who died, not least among our own armed forces; prayers for all leaders and politicians as they face the intractable complexities of living together on our planet, and prayers for good men and women of all the world faiths who look for ways of deepening understanding and working for reconciliation in a broken world, like Archbishop Justin Welby and Pope Francis.
And I am sure that St Cuthbert will want us to pray on his day that our world may know the peace and simplicity of which his own life was such a luminous example.